Creating a product line where once there was but one, Canon follows up its flash-based, high-definition Vixia HF10 AVCHD camcorder with a slightly more powerful model, the HF11. Like its sibling, the HF11 is a sleek black compact model with a well-rounded feature set, great video, and excellent performance, and like the HF10, the HF11 definitely deserves a spot on your short list of potential home-movie camcorders. The real challenge is choosing between the two: the HF11 includes 32GB built-in memory compared with the HF10's 16GB, which becomes essential for the new, memory-gobbling 24-megabit-per-second shooting mode.
The petite HF11 weighs 15.1 ounces with SD card and battery and measures 2.9 inches wide by 2.5 inches high by 5.1 inches deep--small and light enough to fit into a large jacket pocket, which is about as good as it gets on the horizontal designs. That's about the same as its main competitor, the Sony Handycam HDR-CX12 and more compact than its cousins, the hard-disk-based Vixia HG20/HG21 or MiniDV-based Vixia HV30. The plastic body feels quite solid, too.
Like its nearly identical sibling, the HF11 doesn't seem to suffer from the usability issues that usually accompany shrinkage. The controls remain large and easy to operate. The Function button and joystick, which call up and navigate frequently needed shooting settings, live on the LCD bezel. I'm not a big fan of designs that do this, mostly because I find it more difficult to simultaneously operate the controls and hold the camera steady when they're on the LCD than when they lie under my right thumb. In addition, manually focusing with the joystick on the camcorder's smallish 2.7-inch LCD can be a pain, regardless of the zoom-view focus assist. (For more on the design, click through the HF10's slide show.)
The HF11 incorporates 32GB built-in flash memory and a slot for SDHC removable flash. (Its littler and least-expensive brother, the HF100, lacks only built-in memory.) It records AVCHD video at a maximum bit rate of 24Mbps (about 3 hours of video), and can hold up to 12 hours and 28 minutes of video at the lowest bit rate of 5Mbps. That higher bit rate goes to support the full 1,920x1,080 capture, the norm for most of this year's new models, compared with 1,440x1,080 for older AVCHD camcorders, which required only a 12Mbps maximum bit rate. You can record best-quality movies to the card as long as it's a Class 4 SDHC or better (Class 6 is currently fastest).
Its optically stabilized f1.8-3.0 12x zoom lens has a longer reach than the typical 10x lens available in this class, but the rest of its features are pretty common in Canon's prosumer models. For video, these include aperture- and shutter-priority exposure modes, 3 fixed/1 variable zoom speed options, a video light, Instant AF, and a wind-screen filter. You can also record in progressive 30 or 24 frames per second modes, as well as 60i. For still photos, metering, flash, and burst and exposure bracketing options become available as well. The camcorder also supplies a complete set of ports and connectors: component or mini-HDMI out for direct-to-TV playback, mini headphone and mic jacks, and USB for downloading to computer.
The lens performs surprisingly well. Not only does the SuperRange optical image stabilization system work satisfactorily all the way out to the end, but the lens focuses quickly and holds the lock in both dim and bright conditions. Images look sharp, too. On the downside, high-contrast edges show more fringing than usual. The stereo microphone sits beneath the lens and generally delivers good audio quality. However, in recent models, Canon changed the wind-filter option from a forced-on to automatic, and ever since I've found it far less effective. The microphone attenuation (zoom mic) works pretty well, too.